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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 9, 2020 07:32 EDT

 


 

The North Atlantic

    A thousand years before Gordon was born, and more than six hundred years before the date on the calendar, people had made the crossing that Challenger was undertaking now. Their boats were even shallower draft and their instruments were far more primitive. They had not possessed an ephemeris or twentieth-century maps.

    Gordon also knew that they didn’t have helmets with big horns, either: that was just in the movies and the comic books. But horny helmets or no, the Vikings had followed the stepping stones across the ocean until they reached North America. Despite Maartens’ skepticism, he intended that his expedition should do so as well.

    It was a decision that he would think about long afterward.

     


 

    In open ocean, Challenger enjoyed a few days of calm seas, which were pleasant enough that Gordon and Pete spent more time on deck. Maartens was not as happy about them, though; the ship made little headway, as he ordered changes of heading to try and proceed. It wasn’t as if there was insufficient wind: the sails looked full to Gordon.

    “It’s not the wind,” Maartens said. “It’s this.” He pointed to the sailing chart tacked to the table in the pilot house. The map of the Atlantic, direct from a twentieth-century book, showed a tinted oval path that followed the North Atlantic coast and extended arms northeast to the British Isles and eastward toward Africa. “It’s more powerful than the following wind, and it’s costing us time.”

    “You mean the Gulf Stream,” Gordon said.

    Maartens scowled at him. “Is that what it is. I imagine that it will make the return trip faster.”

    “It always did. That’s how they found it,” Gordon answered. “I think Benjamin Franklin first mapped it.”

    “Who?”

    “A famous American.” Who might never be born, Gordon thought. “We have to get north of it.”

    “The further north we go, the worse the storms,” Maartens said. “You want this ship to be trapped in ice, Chehab.”

    “It’s quite a way to the Arctic Circle.”

    “The what?”

    Gordon looked down at the chart. “In order to avoid the Gulf Stream, we will need to sail north — but not as far as the polar ice cap. We need to sail toward this” — he pointed to the area northeast of Labrador and west of Greenland — “and then work our way down the coast.”

    “It would be easier to sail south of this Gulf Stream, then head west and let it take us up the coast.”

    “But we’re not doing that.”

    “Because you have this great desire to see Newfoundland first.”

    “Because,” Gordon said, standing up straight, “the purpose of this mission is not simply to reach North America, but to learn as much as possible about the situation there. And, incidentally, to avoid being killed or captured in the process.

    “If we went to Virginia first, there is some chance we might find that the French are already there. If I were Cardinal Richelieu, I’d try to exercise my claim there rather than in Newfoundland — it’s more temperate, it’s more fertile, and it has a valuable cash crop.”

    “Tobacco.”

    “That’s right. King Charles’ father hated tobacco, but King Charles was taxing it — and requiring every hogshead of the stuff to be carried in English hulls, to be stored in English customhouses, and subject to English tax. When he sold off his colonies, he sold off a lucrative income stream. The Virginians are probably thrilled, but they’re also probably defenseless.”

    “You really think that the French have taken Virginia?”

    “I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to North America. But if they have, we’ll probably be welcomed as a prize of war. I’m not eager to spend any time in a French prison; are you?”

    Maartens grumbled a reply but it was clear to Gordon that he hadn’t thought much about it at all.

    “If they have taken over Virginia,” Gordon continued, “we’ll know about it in advance. And the Gulf Stream will help bring us home. Begrepen? Understood?”

    Maartens was a burly, well-built man; he angered easily — particularly at his own crew. Gordon stood two or three inches taller, but was perhaps forty pounds lighter. The Dutch sailing master was also steadier on his feet on a sailing vessel.

    Gordon wondered if the sailing master’s temper was going to get the best of him, and if the approach he’d just taken with the man had been enough to set him off.

    “This was what Miro advised, ja?”

    “Cavriani, actually. He has some cousins involved in the Danish venture in Newfoundland, and yes, he thinks — so does Miro — that Virginia’s the first target of French expansion. And he doesn’t want us in some French jail either.”

    “I’d rather have heard that from him.”

    Maartens crossed his arms over his chest, as if that settled the matter — but Gordon had a good comeback.

    “That can be arranged,” Gordon said. “You can hear it directly. It’ll be a good test of the radio.”

     


 

    Though the route had been previously discussed, Gordon wanted to avoid dissent — having Maartens as an ally was important, and he wasn’t about to risk having him as an enemy. Accordingly, he paid a visit to the structure that had been built amidships to hold the radio equipment. It was small, barely big enough for two people (who weren’t too tall); it was sturdy, covered with a solid roof that held a large, irregular canvas tied down and covering something — the crew avoided it, as if it was going to jump out and bite them. A thick, rubber-coated cable emerged from the canvas and connected to the antenna, strung across the masts and crosstrees. Another cable extended over the side and into the water, where it attached to a hardwood plank sheathed in copper — the ground for the antenna. Though the down-timers didn’t truly believe it, a lightning strike on the mast, the highest spot for a hundred miles in any direction, wouldn’t harm the ship a bit: it would discharge harmlessly in the ocean as long as the radio was offline. A knife switch in the radio cabin connected and disconnected the radio to the antenna.

    As the day was cool and fair, the door to the shack was open and Gordon could see Ulrich Jaeschke, the radio operator, sitting by the receiver with his long legs stretched out toward the doorway. When he saw Gordon approaching he sat up, but Gordon waved him off.

    “I think we’re going to have to put you to work, Herr Jaeschke,” he said. “We should see if you can actually reach the mainland with this.”

    “Ja, of course we can, Herr Chehab,” the young Magdeburger said, his English tinged with the clipped plattdeutsch accent common to the northern part of the Germanies. He slapped the ceiling with the flat of his hand. “Just have to connect the radio to the antenna.”

    “The lads are afraid of the wires. They don’t think that it’s safe to touch the wires.”

    “What, do they think it will bite them?”

    “Or electrocute them.”

    “There’s no juice in the antenna if I’m not transmitting. It’s just like flypaper — except for radio waves. Even if I am, up on the mast there’s nothing to ground to, and so nothing to fear. At most it might tingle if they grab it.”

    “Try telling them that. They mostly think it’s magic, and that you’re some sort of magician.”

    “And so I am,” Jaeschke said. “Two years ago I was at a brickworks, sweating out an honest day’s pay — and now here I am, doing magic on a sailing ship. You up-timers have changed everything.”

    “You’re complaining?”

    “Nein, not a bit. I’ve baked enough bricks to last a lifetime, Herr Chehab. I don’t care if I never see another.”

    “Fair enough. What do you need to get ready?”

    “Nothing, really.” He rested his hand on the big knife switch. “I’ll warm up the set.”

     


 

    Jaeschke was right about the crew’s aversion to the antenna. It was held off from the mast by ceramic insulators. There were two wires running down from the top of the mast to each side, forming a giant upside down “V.” The diagonals ended well above the ship’s rail with large insulators attaching to the ropes that anchored them. The main armature was nearly a hundred feet long, hooked to posts along the mainmast, with the side lengths extending along the sails.

 



 

    After a fair amount of cursing and ordering by Maartens, Challenger turned into the wind, keeping the ship relatively motionless. Jaeschke stepped back inside his sanctum, where the dials and instruments were already glowing.

    Maartens, for his part, leaned against the taffrail and squinted at the sky, which had gone from mostly sunny to mildly cloudy in a matter of minutes.

    “I don’t like this, Chehab,” he said, spitting over the side. “Not at all.”

    “You wanted to make sure our patron agreed with the course,” Gordon said. “We can ask him.”

    “On a clear day. But I’m not happy with the look of those clouds.”

    “What’s wrong?”

    Maartens looked Gordon up and down, as if measuring him. “Remember our little talk about safety on open ocean, up-timer? I told you that anything your technology brings to the table makes us safer, but there’s no way to be completely safe. I’m not happy to be lying hove to in mid ocean with a storm coming. Anything can happen out here.”

    “I appreciate your wisdom.”

    “And you ignore it.”

    Gordon walked away from Maartens, who remained at the rail, looking up at the sky. He could faintly hear the crackling noise of the radio, though the door to the shack was closed.

    “You wanted guidance,” Gordon said. “Jaeschke will get in contact; you’ll get your guidance; then we’ll follow the course.”

    The sun was behind a cloud, so much of the radio shack was in shadow.

    Gordon looked up at the sky. The wind was picking up, and things looked darker than they had just a few minutes ago.

    There was a loud crackle from inside the equipment shack; Gordon looked toward it.

    Then he heard the rumble of far-off thunder.

    “I think the storm is here,” Gordon said.

    “What?”

    Gordon could feel the first hint of rain on his face. “Weather,” he said. “It’s coming.” He took two steps toward the shack and saw a huge arc of lightning erupt from a cloud in the distance.

    The sky had darkened quite a bit in the last few minutes. The crew was beginning to batten things down on the main deck. Maartens turned to look at Gordon, then glanced up at the mainmast.

    Another crash of lightning came out of the sky. Several seconds later — Gordon counted, as every mountain boy learned to do — a loud rumble of thunder echoed across the ship.

    “Crap. He’s got to disconnect.”

    Maartens grabbed Gordon by the shoulder. “If the lightning hits the mast, your wires will run right down into the sea, net wahr?”

    “Not if the damn radio is still in circuit! I’ve got to tell Jaeschke to hang up.”

    He shrugged loose from Maartens and began to run, but the first rain on the deck, which was tilting slightly as the wind pushed at the ship, got the better of him: his feet slipped out from under and he landed on his backside.

    Maartens caught up with him. “Damn landsman, you’re the least handy man I’ve ever seen. What needs to be done?”

    “The radio. It has to be disconnected or –“

    “Or?”

    Gordon hauled himself to his feet. “Or else. I’ve got to get to the shack.” He made his way a few steps aft, trying to keep his balance; but then there was someone there before him: the Alsatian, Hoff.

    “I’ll take care of it,” Hoff said, and began nimbly making his way past, using toeholds and hand braces without looking. The rain was coming down now in big fat droplets; fifteen feet above the deck the lightning came down again; Gordon thought it was closer this time, lighting up the entire scene with a bright glow for a moment — and then again a moment later. A loud roll of thunder followed.

    Well if this isn’t just crazy, Gordon thought, as he tried to follow. He heard another crackle coming from the radio in the shack. Why hadn’t Jaeschke disconnected the switch? Granted, the shack had no window, but he still should have been able to hear the thunder.

    He was probably too preoccupied with the radio. If he was having trouble, and given his relative lack of experience⦠Thankfully, Hoff had reached the door of the shack and was yanking at it.

    Oh, Christ. Somehow the door had gotten stuck. The Alsatian turned toward Gordon, alarm in his face: the down-timer didn’t know what might happen, but knew that if an up-timer wanted the radio turned off, it was time to turn it off.

    With a fierce yank, Hoff was able to pull it open. Gordon heard a few words: “Jaeschke, you need –“

    But he was interrupted by a brilliant flash and a sound that Gordon would remember for the rest of his life: a crack that transformed itself suddenly into a ringing like the sound of the world’s biggest hammer striking the world’s biggest bell. There was an explosion in the shack and then the smell and sound of fire.

     


 

    When Stephane’s senses returned, the first thing that swam into view was a kindly woman’s face, framed by bright light. His first thought was that he had died on the deck, and that this was Heaven and that he was looking up at an angel.

    But he did not think he was likely to end up there: even if his deeds hadn’t betrayed him, he was hardly in a state of grace — and there were too many things in pain to suggest that he had given up his body just yet.

    Slowly he began to be aware that he was being spoken to. He swallowed, closed his eyes and opened them again, and tried to sit up — but someone gently pushed him back down into his hammock.

    He closed his eyes again and listened to the voice — a woman’s voice, which wasn’t making much sense just yet. He could hear the rain pelting down, but there was no thunder —

    There had been thunder all right: it was moments after a flash of lightning that had come out of the sky and jumped from the tip of the mast to the wire at the top of the shack, and then there had been an explosion and he’d grit his teeth and clenched his hands around the door post as it blew off its hinges —

    It was the last thing he remembered, before waking here.

    “– seems finally to have relaxed,” the female voice said. “He should be able to sleep more easily,” she added.

    “It’s a wonder he’s alive at all.”

    “You would know better than I, Gordon,” she said. “I suppose that you up-timers understand all about lightning.”

    “Enough to stay away from it.”

    “Stephane did something brave — and foolish. We could have had two casualties instead of one.”

    Stephane opened his eyes at the mention of his name. “One?” he croaked, scarcely able to form the word.

    Gordon Chehab came into view. He looked concerned. “How are you doing?” he said.

    “Thirsty.”

    “Sure.” He brought a small ceramic bowl to Stephane’s lips, and helped him to drink a small amount of something — watered wine, from the taste of it. He swallowed a few times, managed to keep from coughing, and moved his head aside.

    “Thank you.”

    “You may have saved the ship,” Chehab said.

    “But not⦔ the cough came then, and it took a moment to continue. “But not everyone on it.”

    “No.” Chehab set the bowl aside. “The lightning strike grounded on the radio shack. Theâ¦operator was inside. The radio was destroyed. There was a fire⦔

    Stephane closed his eyes again. He’d not spoken to the radio operator, only nodding in passing; he had seemed a nice enough sort, a down-timer who had been canny enough to get a new skill.

    And the radio was gone. Even if he’d figured out how to send a message, that was no longer possible.

    “Poor guy.” Stephane wasn’t sure if he was talking about Jaeschke, the radio operator, or himself.

    He realized for the first time that he would have to get away from Challenger somehow, somewhere in the New World; there were French colonies, and he would have to reach them.

    Poor guy, he thought, and let himself drift with the sound of the rain.


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